San Francisco poised to ban ‘forever chemicals’ in firefighter gear

May 13, 2024

San Francisco is poised to become the first city in the country to issue a ban on firefighter clothing manufactured with so-called forever chemicals. 

Local lawmakers are expected to pass an ordinance on Tuesday prohibiting the use of protective equipment made with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The long-lasting compounds do not break down, allowing them to linger almost permanently in the environment.

PFAS can be ingested or absorbed into the skin and have been linked to harmful health effects, including decreased fertility, low-birth weight and developmental delays in children, a higher risk of certain cancers and increased cholesterol levels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The compounds were once commonly used in nonstick, fire-proof and stain-resistant products, though they have largely phased out of U.S. manufacturing. But PFAS are still found in some firefighting foams and nearly all firefighters’ uniforms, since they help clothing repel flammable liquids and resist extreme heat.

Learn more about this story on “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT.

Last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted in support of the ban and is expected to do the same during a final vote. Once in effect, the law would give the city’s fire department until June 30, 2026 to purchase new protective clothing made without PFAS for its more than 1,400 firefighters.

‘Forever chemicals’ in firefighting gear

Lt. Magaly Saade, a firefighter and training instructor at the San Francisco Fire Department, has had cancer twice, forcing her to undergo radiation and a double mastectomy. 

She believes wearing protective pants and jacket — commonly known as “turnouts” — during her 26 years as a firefighter may have contributed to her illness, since they were manufactured with PFAS.

“I definitely don’t want someone else to have to go through what I did,” Saade said.

Lt. Magaly Saade.
Lt. Magaly Saade, a firefighter with the San Francisco Fire Department, is a two-time cancer survivor.Bigad Shaban

She added that putting potentially harmful chemicals into equipment used by “people who are already there to risk their life for you seems really malicious.”

However, the precise levels of PFAS that firefighters get exposed to through their uniforms is still being studied and remains largely unknown. On the job, they are also exposed to other cancer-causing substances in various ways. Because of first responders’ exposure to smoke, asbestos, diesel exhaust and other hazards, the World Health Organization classifies firefighting as carcinogenic.

The San Francisco Fire Department has lost more than 300 firefighters to cancer over the past 20 years, according to the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation. 

‘A lower cost than cancer’

Protective gear made without PFAS is not yet widely available. 

Since February, 11 San Francisco firefighters have been testing new turnouts made without PFAS — part of a nationwide trial orchestrated by the International Association of Fire Fighters, a union that represents firefighters, paramedics and other emergency responders.

The trial is studying the reliability of uniforms from three companies: Fire-Dex, Lion and Honeywell. The group hopes to release preliminary findings this summer.

Adam Wood, vice president of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, is one of the firefighters testing the gear. He said the clothing appears to be performing as designed.

“In terms of working in a fire, allowing us to do our job, protecting us from heat — I have nothing but good things to report,” he said.

Adam Wood buckles his coat as he puts on his uniform
San Francisco firefighter Adam Wood puts on his experimental protective gear.Courtesy Michael Horn

The estimated price tag for each turnout manufactured without PFAS is $3,400, according to a report by the San Francisco’s Budget Analyst’s office. Since firefighters generally have two sets, the total estimate for the city is $10.1 million.

“It’s a lower cost than cancer and it’s a lower cost than firefighter lives,” Wood said.

Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who authored the legislation, said he believes “it is morally right and it is financially right.” 

“Cost is so small compared to a human life, is so small compared to the cost of health care, is so small compared to the cost of settling lawsuits,” he said.

Aaron Peskin portrait
San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin.Courtesy Michael Horn

The push against PFAS

Proponents of the San Francisco ban say the health risks associated with PFAS have been known for years. In 2020, a study out of the University of Notre Dame raised serious safety concerns about the prevalence of PFAS in firefighter clothing. Government researchers have since published similar findings.

In 2022, California enacted a near total ban on firefighting foams containing PFAS, since the chemicals can leech into the environment wherever the foams are used. The foams served as the industry standard in the state for roughly five decades and continue to be used in many places. 

Other states, including Colorado and Washington, have instituted similar restrictions.

But PFAS are still used in the manufacturing of turnouts.

The International Association of Fire Fighters blames the lack of PFAS-free options on industry specifications released by the National Fire Protection Association and is currently suing over some of those standards. The NFPA, however, says its standards are developed by “expert volunteers,” including “many representatives of the firefighting community,” and do not require the use of PFAS, leaving the choice to private companies.

Supporters of the San Francisco ban believe it may push manufacturers to veer away from the compounds.

Trading ‘one hazard for another?’

Questions remain about the long-term safety of PFAS-free alternatives for firefighters.

“We don’t want to just trade one hazard for another,” said Dr. Bryan Ormond, a chemist and assistant professor of Textile Engineering at North Carolina State University, who is researching turnout materials. “We have to ask the questions of what the tradeoffs are, what can possibly happen.”

PFAS and Non PFAS fabrics
Fabrics tested at a lab at North Carolina State University.James DeAlto

Ormond says his work has so far shown that removing PFAS may make firefighter uniforms less breathable and more susceptible to burning. He found that alternative fabrics can be up to 60% less repellant than traditional turnouts.

“We’re introducing a potential hazard for flammability on the fire scene where firefighters didn’t have that before,” he said.

Wood agreed that more research and testing are still necessary.

“We just need to make sure they still function well as turnouts, protecting us from heat and allowing us to do our job in a burning building,” he said.  “We need to know the PFAS replacement isn’t exchanging one poison for another.”

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